It’s four-thirty in the afternoon, and I’m attempting to get groceries. This attempt is an utter failure, because my daughter is having a very well-timed meltdown. She has climbed with agile speed into the grocery-filled section of the cart and is standing there, body tensed and face red, yelling and crying as I try to navigate a speedy exit route. I am trying to find calm so I can strategize. She refuses to sit down.
I can feel my whole body tense up as I grip the handle and try to firmly (but kindly) encourage my child to sit down in the cart. My mind is racing, accumulating self-critical thoughts faster than I can mentally bat them away. I am one-hundred percent freaking out inside and trying not to show it.
Before I know it, I’ve become angry mommy and I’m no longer able to handle the situation with the calm, loving energy I’d prefer to use.
Though we know, cognitively, that self-criticism and panic don’t help moments like these, it can feel quite impossible to navigate the lightning-quick response from our bodies and minds.
It’s no fun to feel that heart-racing, sweat-inducing, mind-spinning feeling that can happen in stressful or nerve-wracking situations (or those delightful moments when you wake up at 3 am and remember that super embarrassing thing you said yesterday).
How to find calm, however, is not always something that we learn in school or even at home as children. Sure, someone may tell you to calm down, relax, or “let it go.” That is much easier said than done, though, and many techniques we try in an effort to calm ourselves down actually create more stress in our mind-body systems.
Creating calm in our bodies and minds requires a kind, compassionate approach.
It can really help to understand what is happening in your body so that you and your body can work together.
Here’s a quick peek into the science of regulation, which is my favorite way to talk about “calming down.” The word regulation allows me to take a step back and recognize that I can’t force myself to feel calm. However, I can allow my nervous system to regulate.
This language really helps reduce self-judgment. When I notice I’m reactive or freaked out, it helps to use the words “activated” or “dysregulated” to describe the physical, emotional, and mental experience of fear-based reactions.
You can shift into a compassionate, kind way of working with yourself when you view yourself not just as a mind, but also a nervous system. Dr. Stephen Porges proposed the Polyvagal Theory in 1994 and has done much research into the way the nervous system functions. The Polyvagal Theory helps us to understand how the vagus nerve interacts with our environment and sends information to the body and brain.
Depending on what happens with this information is processed, you may end up feeling shut down (called a freeze state), very activated, defensive, or reactive (called a fight or flight state), or socially and emotionally open (called a social engagement state). (This is a quick overview and simplified explanation of the complex and elegant theory. If you’re curious, I recommend Porges’ book The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)
Porges’ work gives us a new, compassionate way to view ourselves. It’s so kind to be able to notice that you are activated, realize your nervous system has noticed something it thinks you need protection around, and understand that this is a physiological response. You aren’t consciously choosing this; your body is protecting you. There’s no shame, blame, or self-judgment in this observation.
When you are activated, you’ll probably notice your mind is quickly tossing out fear-based thoughts, angry criticisms, or a mix of the two. It may be hard to stop worrying about something or you might be consumed by fear.
Trying to deal with this mind-activity by focusing on the content of your worries is very tricky. This is because the content of your mind-activity is derived from your nervous system state. You are supposed to be thinking defensively when you need to protect yourself. This is a natural protective mechanism that is physiologically present to help keep you safe.
If you can help your nervous system regulate, you will shift your mental state as well. You’ll find yourself no longer attaching to fear-based or reactive thoughts and you’ll flow into the ability to create, connect, feel compassion, and be open. This is the “calm” that many of us are seeking when we can’t stop the mind from stressing over that embarrassing moment or other gripping concern.
Lots of self-help models have used the triune brain model (which you may have encountered if you’ve seen the terms reptilian brain or lizard brain), created by Dr. Paul D Maclean, to attempt to create a shift toward calm when we’re activated. This theory, however, has been disproven and doesn’t provide the necessary information to help the nervous system regulate.
The solution lies in seeing the body as whole system. The brain, vagus nerve, and entire nervous system need help to regulate, and the quickest way to do so is often to use a physical approach rather than trying to find calm through cognitive processes. (These cognitive processes will often feel difficult, if not impossible, when you are activated.)
You don’t need to memorize or digest all of the above science in order to accomplish regulation in the simple steps I’ll share below. However, I include it in case it helps you to see yourself in a much more compassionate light.
For the last several years, I’ve used the following technique in my personal life and coaching practice. I learned it from Ana DoValle and Heather Wright, two nervous system experts who live in my area and have worked with me and my daughter. I love it because it’s efficient, quick, and simple. I can use it with my daughter at home, modifying it as needed for her age. (For young kids, have them imagine breathing in a great smell they love and blowing out candles really slowly.)
Ready to regulate? Here’s how:
- Lie down on your back on a firm surface with your knees up and your feet flat on the floor. Place a hand over your belly button.
- When you’re ready, inhale through your nose at a moderate pace until the inhalation feels complete.
- Exhale slowly, making the exhale last as long as possible. It should end up being double the inhale (or more) in duration. Exhaling through the nose is helpful, but you can use pursed lips instead if you find that helps.
- When the exhale is complete, wait a few seconds before you inhale. Pay attention to your palm below your belly button to help you center your awareness on the lower belly.
- When your body naturally wants to initiate an inhale, let it do so, and notice that it originates from the lower belly. (In other words, you’ll feel your belly rise slightly before your chest moves.)
- Repeat steps 3-5 for 2-10 minutes. (Or longer, if you choose.)
I find that I need at least 2-5 minutes for my body to show signs of regulation. These include a calm sensation, less mind-chatter, relaxation of tension, lessening of any strong emotional reactions, a settling feeling within my body, a slight tingle like someone is giving me a pleasant massage, or a sense of overall well-being.
Over time, you’ll be able to do this quite effectively when seated, too, but I’ve found it’s easier to learn when you’re lying down.
This technique shifts the oxygen levels in your body, which directly affects the nervous system and how it perceives this moment. It also sends signals from your lungs to the rest of your nervous system that let your body know you’re not in danger. The ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide is very important in regulating the nervous system, and strangely, exhaling carbon dioxide is the fastest way to help your body find its ideal ratio. (The temptation is to suck in oxygen when we’re feeling off, but this does not actually work, as you may have noticed when you’re exercising. However, when we’re not moving strenuously, we tend to try to suck in air when stress arises, effectively causing more dysregulation.)
This breathing pattern is one I share with my clients when I’m teaching them my mind-body-spirit tools. It augments the other body-based techniques I use to help myself and my clients regulate and is great for grocery-store moments, should you ever be in a public predicament like me and wish to settle yourself quickly before angry mommy takes over.
Also, it’s a whole lot easier to access your intuitive inner wisdom when your mind isn’t spinning and adrenaline isn’t coursing through your system. When I am activated and need to access my inner wisdom to create a little magic in my life, this breathing technique helps every time.
Mind-body science is always evolving, (here’s an article that includes recent studies on breathing using this pattern, but doesn’t incorporate Polyvagal Theory) but long exhalation breathing techniques have been around for centuries. The proof is in the regulation you’ll feel and the joyful return of your sanity. Happy regulating!
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